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Nicole Grabiel Researches International Dimensions of Conflict in Central America

Nicole Grabiel works with the Unfinished Sentences project to document human rights violations stemming from El Salvador’s armed conflict (1980–1992). With the support from the Ben Linder Fund, she is also working on an undergraduate thesis about the international dimensions of conflict in Central America.

October 3, 2023

As this year’s Benjamin Linder Fellow, I have seen my research expand with a sense of immediacy and humanity that I would have thought impossible before I joined UW Center for Human Rights last fall. The first aspect of my work is to run what we call the “FOIA machine,” by which I mean keeping track of the hundreds of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests about Central America that UWCHR researchers have compiled over the years. My indomitable teammate, Ava, and I spent much of the summer making sure that open requests keep moving through the pipeline, closed requests get logged away, and newly released documents are analyzed and then safely filed in our database. We also wrote a dozen new requests for information based on inquiries from our partner organizations in El Salvador. If one thing has become clear to me over the last year, it is that this down-in-the-weeds procedural work is indispensable. It is what allows us to produce new information after 40 years, to turn to a large and ever-growing database of documents whenever families reach out to us looking for information about their loved ones, and to try, as researchers, to disentangle the systems of abuse and impunity at work.

The second aspect of my work falls squarely in this last category. I am writing an undergraduate thesis that looks at the armed conflict in El Salvador (1980-1992) through the lens of documents from Argentina’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, paying particular attention to the transnational coordination of repression and the potential extension of an Operation Condor-like system into Central America. The same logic that underpins Unfinished Sentences’ FOIA work applies here; in the absence of documentation from El Salvador itself, documents from tangential countries, like the United States and Argentina, are the next best alternative. Most of the documents that I am reviewing now were digitized and released in 2009 as part of former ambassador Alfredo Forti’s investigation of repressive coordination by Argentina’s military dictatorship (1976-1983). The Benjamin Linder Fellowship allowed me to comb through each one in detail, looking for information that might shed new light on how and why the situation in El Salvador deteriorated as it did.

The results look promising. For example, one cable from Argentina’s embassy in San Salvador indicates that Argentina offered El Salvador military scholarships and advice based on “lived experience” as early as August 1977.[1] Another shows that Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, who would go on to be El Salvador’s Minister of Defense, led a delegation of 23 military officers to Buenos Aires in December 1978.[2] Others still recount remarkably frank conversations between Argentine ambassadors and members of the Revolutionary Governing Junta, that lay bare Argentina’s preoccupation with Monsignor Óscar Romero, and establish patterns of military, economic, and public relations aid between the two countries. It will take some time to parse the significance of all this information, but it certainly seems to point to the fact that Salvadoran and Argentine officials saw themselves as united in fighting an “international subversive campaign.” If we can establish a clear link between the conflict in El Salvador and Argentina’s Dirty War tactics, then we can better understand the patterns of violence that were at play in El Salvador and, ultimately, become more effective human rights researchers.

Just as I was setting about this work in earnest, our team was asked to look into a string of forced disappearances in which individuals associated with “subversive” activity in El Salvador were arrested and disappeared abroad, a poignant reminder that the broad ideas at the center of my research have deeply personal consequences. How do we account for violence that crosses international borders? I certainly do not purport to answer this question with a flurry of FOIA requests and an undergraduate thesis, but I do sincerely hope to get one step closer to doing so. As one family member of disappeared individuals put it in my very first meeting as a UWCHR researcher, “It’s the fight that matters.”


[1] Argentine Embassy in El Salvador, “Ofrecimiento de becas militares – insinuar asesoramiento en base a experiencia vivida (terrorismo)” (cable, San Salvador, 31 August 1977).

[2] Argentine Embassy in El Salvador, “Visita a Argentina de delegación militares de El Salvador (Vides Casanova)” (cable, San Salvador, 1 December 1978)